The National Theatre … Bloomsbury?

In December 1913 The Times announced that a site in London had been acquired to build the Shakespeare Memorial National Theatre. Located on Keppel Street between Malet Street and Gower Street in Bloomsbury the land was bought from the Duke of Bedford for approximately £60,000.

national-version-6The project was being run by the Shakespeare Memorial National Theatre Committee which was formed in 1908 by combining two existing movements. The first was a National Theatre campaign which had been rumbling along since the mid-nineteenth century and gained impetus in 1904 after the publication of William Archer and Harley Granville Barker’s book A National Theatre: Scheme & Estimates which detailed plans for funding and running a national theatre. The other was the Shakespeare Memorial Committee, founded in 1905 on the money of a brewer who wanted a Shakespeare statue installed in London. The proposed statue proved to be very unpopular but a way forward was found by  Committee-member and  English professor, Israel Gollancz, who carefully used the word ‘memorial’ rather than ‘statue’ in their resolution, thus satisfying the brewer while leaving the way open for a theatre.

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The newly formed Committee included actor-managers, composers, academics and writers,  Harley  Granville Barker, George Bernard Shaw, Sidney Lee, Thomas Hardy and prominent Stratford novelist, Marie Corelli. A key member was Edith Lyttelton who not only organized fund-raising and wrote a Shakespeare Pageant, performed at Knole Park, but also secured the first major business donation to the funds of £70,000.

lyttelton-5The Committee had considered and rejected various sites in London including Spring Gardens, off The Mall and a site near Waterloo Bridge on the South Bank. This was rejected on the grounds of difficulty of access. There were concerns that Keppel Street was too far from the London theatre district to attract audiences but Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree pointed out that ‘we have motors to-day’. Harley Granville Barker argued that people would set out deliberately to visit the theatre rather than drop in by chance ‘a place they will decide upon at least a day before they visit it’. 

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Not everyone was in favour: an anonymous letter in the Daily Express noted the proximity to the British Museum and asked ‘Could anything be more appropriate for this fossilised idea?’

Nevertheless, Israel Gollancz stated the aim of having a national theatre worthy of Shakespeare’s name open in time for the celebrations of the tercentenary in 1916.

War intervened. The Committee was broken up for the duration and the theatre was never built. In 1916 a hut was put up on the site by the YMCA for the benefit of troops and known as the ‘Shakespeare Hut’. The plot was sold in 1922 and is now the site of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

History repeated itself when the Shakespeare Memorial National Theatre Committee bought another plot in 1937, this time on Exhibition Road in Kensington. Plans were drawn up by Edwin Lutyens and funds were raised. Another war intervened and another plan was abandoned.

Finally attention turned south of the river.

For more information see The History of the National Theatre by John Elsom and Nicholas Tomalin (Cape, 1978).

Kate Welch, Senior Library Assistant

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